In early 2014 my husband introduced me to Scotch and we have quickly become friends. Recently, my new friend – Mr. Scotch – told me that he has other friends like him that I should get to know; I told him I’d be pleased to hang out with his whole gang, and so I did.
On a sunny summer’s day in August, while vacationing in beautiful Prince Edward County (PEC), hubby and I visited the much talked about 66 Gilead Distillery. PEC isn’t too far from Toronto – it’s about an hour and a half drive east – and it feels like worlds away. Unlike Toronto’s distillery district and much different from the concentration of breweries and wineries in Niagara, 66 Gilead Distillery is not close to any highway. Heading south from the 401 you leave the highway and turn on many a country road before your last turn onto Gilead Road and then into the parking lot. It is wonderful! The distillery is housed on an 80-acre property home to the original second empire Cooper-Norton homestead built in the early 1870s during the prosperous Barley Days by Bert Cooper (aka William Burton Cooper) – a wealthy hops grower. The original hops drying barn is still on site and the carriage house has been turned into a Cooperage.
When you walk into the house you will be greeted by vaulted wood ceiling, brick interior walls and a grand tasting bar. At the tasting bar you will find rye and oak inspired whisky as well as gin, a vodka infused with pine and another made with whole wheat. You will also find rum and an oaked and unoaked Shochu (similar to sake). The selection of these small batch, hand-crafted spirits was quite impressive.
John – our host at the bar – was quite skilled in his knowledge of these local spirits. His words were like a song as he described to us the aromas, tastes and inspirations behind each of the Gilead selections. And, he was bang on. He proudly shared that 66 Gilead opened its doors in 2011, is owned by entrepreneurs Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and won a New Business of the Year award in 2013. He also explained that the pure copper still on-site, used to distill the spirits, is handmade as are the barrels that the dark spirits are aged within. As much as I enjoyed our stop, next time I will contact them ahead to book a tour; I would like to see more of the distillery – especially the copper still.
- Tip: Tasting at a distillery is not the same as tasting at a winery. If you are planning on driving out of there anytime soon you will likely not be able to taste everything so pace yourself and it’s worth it to share a tasting between the people in your party.
I thoroughly enjoyed the scotch-like characteristics of the White Dragon SHoCHu, the newly released Wild Oak Whisky, and the pine infused vodka – a unique and Canadian spirit that sits part-drunk in my dining room cabinet. I do regret not picking up a bottle of the SHoCHu as well and know that I will be heading back to PEC in the fall when his vodka bottle runs dry.
My great-grandparents were living – albeit in Italy – when this Cooper-Norton home was built. And being inside, I could not help but feel connected to the not-so-distant past. I deeply respect how the distillery had honoured the old house by filling it with new life. As visitors move from room to room they are greeted by the works of local artists, a picture of beloved Bert Cooper, and artifacts from days gone by.
In an internet archive called “Pioneer Life on the Bay of Quinte” – on page 213 – I found the following about Bert Cooper:
William Burton Cooper, resides on lot 18, N.W.L., which he owns and occupies. He has devoted considerable attention to growing hops, and is also a large fruit grower. He married Matura J., daughter of John B. Striker. Although quite fully occupied with his own interests, Mr. Cooper takes a keen interest in current events, as is well known and esteemed for his social qualities among his friends and neighbors, and indeed, by all who know him.
I also learned that the first member of the Cooper family to settle in PEC was Bert’s great grandfather Obadiah Cooper who came to PEC from New York in 1802! I love when a property comes soaked in so much history. And, I find it especially inspiring when a local businesses like 66 Gilead invests in resurrecting this history for locals to remember and visitors to learn about. I mean, had it not been for Bert’s “considerable attention to growing hops” bringing sustainable jobs to PEC after the lumber business died down, the Barley Days of PEC likely wouldn’t have been nearly as prosperous and who knows if many of the businesses in PEC would be there now? So kudos to 66 Gilead, their love of local history and commitment to hand-made, small batch spirits for us to enjoy today.